Carroll resident and former City Council member Dr. Richard Collison urges a committee not to award a grant to his town.
Carroll resident and former City Council member Dr. Richard Collison urges a committee not to award a grant to his town.

August 9, 2018

Carroll leaders who are at the cusp of obtaining the necessary funding and then launching a multi-million-dollar renovation of the Carroll Public Library and City Hall might have to delay work for months as a dispute with one of the project’s outspoken detractors goes to court.

City leaders expected to be awarded a $500,000 state grant for the project in the far southeast Iowa city of Danville on Wednesday, but the committee in charge of doling out that money delayed its decision because of a lawsuit Dr. Richard Collison, 90, of Carroll, filed Tuesday against the city.

The lawsuit — filed in Carroll County District Court less than a day before the state economic-development meeting in what Enhance Iowa board member Kyle Carter, of Davenport, described as an “11th-hour” fashion — seeks an injunction that would prevent the city from starting the library project.

The Enhance Iowa board halted the expected vote on the half-million-dollar Community Attraction and Tourism (CAT) grant due to an internal provision that prevents it from awarding money to any project associated with an active lawsuit, said Kristin Hanks-Bents, assistant legal counsel for the Iowa Economic Development Authority.

Hanks-Bents said she’s not aware of a resident of any other Iowa community filing a lawsuit to derail a CAT project before the Enhance Iowa board.

“We have never seen a lawsuit filed, certainly not the day before,” she said. “I’ve never seen it.”

Collison, a wealthy retired businessman and farmland owner who lives in town, has fought for years to block a library renovation that doesn’t meet his thrifty requirements, but a super majority of voters opposed him last year when they approved a $3.8 million bond referendum to help pay for the estimated $6.8 million project that will modernize both the library and City Hall.

Collison already has spent thousands of dollars of his own money to buy advertisements that urged other residents to oppose the project, according to state campaign finance reports. Two lawyers with a Des Moines law firm are representing him in the lawsuit.

“I don’t understand how one person can have so much anger and hatred for the library,” Carroll Mayor Eric Jensen said Wednesday. “This is unreal.”

Collison, in a later interview with the Daily Times Herald, said he continues to be frustrated with what he considers to be misleading statements from city leaders about the project.

Chief among his concerns is whether voters were misled about the bond referendum’s effect on the amount of taxes residents pay to the city. The project’s proponents said it wouldn’t raise taxes.

Technically the statement is true because the new bond will coincide with the city’s paying off old debts. However, without the new bond, taxes might have decreased for residents, although city officials have said it’s preferable practice in city management to keep taxes fairly consistent.

He further thinks it’s too risky for the city to expect that the library foundation will meet its $2.5 million goal.

Collison and his attorneys have been poised to file the lawsuit for months, he said. It was Monday’s City Council meeting that spurred him to do it, because he left with the impression that city leaders had no plan to cover potential cost overruns.

He insists that the project will cost at least $1 million more than the city’s estimates, but included in his figure is the interest that will be paid on the bond. Cities don’t typically include that in the pricetags of their projects, and it doesn’t result in a cost overrun.

“It pains me deeply to have to file a lawsuit against my hometown,” Collison said. “My motivation is to make damn sure the taxpayer doesn’t spend one damn cent more. We will go to the ends of the Earth to defend that.”

Collison’s lawsuit asks a judge to impose several requirements before the project can move forward, including:

— The Carroll Public Library Foundation gives the $2.5 million it has pledged to the city for the project in cash, not just pledges.

— Spend no more than $6.8 million for the project, which will expand the library into current City Hall space and renovate a donated bank building for a relocated City Hall.

— Use no public money to pay for cost overages.

— Do not increase taxes to pay for the project.

Those requirements arise from the referendum campaign, not the ballot language that voters approved, so it’s unclear whether a judge can impose them.

John Blyth, one of Collison’s attorneys, said he is not aware of any similar lawsuit that has been filed against an Iowa city. It’s uncharted territory.

“What we’re going with there is the promises the city made,” he told the Times Herald. “We want to make sure the city lives up to those promises.”

City leaders have traveled three times this summer to eastern and central Iowa seeking grant money from the state’s Enhance Iowa board and Community Attraction and Tourism grant committee, of which some members have signalled support of the Carroll project.

The board now has delayed a decision on the grant award three times since May, first to encourage the foundation to seek smaller donations from more residents, then to encourage the foundation to raise money for a late-discovered price increase in the project, and finally this week while awaiting more information about Collison’s lawsuit.

“I’ll say that I think this is incredibly impressive,” board member Emily Damman of Indianola said. “You did a great job of listening to what we were saying, not just the last meeting, but a few meetings ago when I was pushing the individual donors. You came back and did that.”

Since the last Enhance Iowa meeting on July 11 in Cedar Falls, the nonprofit Carroll Library Foundation raised $333,135 from 133 individuals and businesses.

The foundation’s total fundraising hit $2.1 million and would have climbed to $2.6 million had the state awarded the CAT grant — as members of Enhance Iowa said they had wanted to do on Wednesday.

Board member Michael Broshar, of Buckingham, said the state panel needs time to review Collison’s lawsuit.

“Because of that, I don’t believe we are in a position where we can make an award today,” he said.

Damman said the board would eye legal remedies to make the grant money available to the City of Carroll.

“I don’t know that a single lawsuit should hold a project hostage, from our perspective,” she said.

Enhance Iowa board member Lisa Hein, of Ames, described the Carroll library modernization plan as a “great project.”

“I’m sorry you are facing such challenges in your community for a library,” she said. “I mean, it’s not complicated. You are not putting in a nuclear waste dump.”

The Enhance Iowa board received a letter about the lawsuit Tuesday from Collison’s attorney, and board members gave Carroll city officials a heads-up about it before Wednesday’s board meeting in Danville. Collison and his attorneys had not informed the city of the lawsuit before the meeting in Danville.

City and library officials gave the CAT grant committee an update on the project Wednesday and planned to meet with them again next month.

“I think it’s disappointing that this is being done at this late hour,” City Manager Mike Pogge-Weaver said. “The 61.8 percent of the voters that voted yes to the project, their vote is now in jeopardy.”

He added that the city won’t comment specifically on pending litigation.

The city has 20 days to respond to the lawsuit. It’s unclear whether a judge will issue an injunction and how many months it will take the lawsuit to conclude. City officials will work to put together a plan to respond to the lawsuit as well as to take the next steps in the library and City Hall modernization projects.

We’re going to keep forging ahead,” Pogge-Weaver said.